Foxed by genetics

AMBARISH SATWIK | Updated on September 12, 2014

Will a teli’s son always remain a teli? Even if he is reared by Pathans

The abiding project of the Indian state, as outlined in article 16(4) of the constitution, is to effect a reversal of what the Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky observed about our peoples. The Indian caste system, wrote Dhobzhansky in 1962, is the grandest, though perhaps not deliberate, apparently unsuccessful genetic experiment ever performed on human populations… A nature–nurture problem of the highest complexity… An experiment on a grand scale that attempted to breed varieties of men genetically specialised in the performance of different functions.

According to genetic studies, the experiment started quite abruptly about 2,000 years ago with a series of founder effects. Quite suddenly, in the Land of Milk and Honey and Seven Rivers and happily cross-mating peoples, without apparent reason, endogamy was established. New endogamous tribes were formed by a small number of individuals breaking away from larger populations. And their endogamy was relentless enough to ensure complete biological separation of these ‘tribes’. The subsequent inbreeding had the effect of freezing the personal genetic histories of these lineages. In this frozen genetic isolation was born jati, the caste system.

What made the old lemon swim a bit in these matters was this wonderfully realised Urdu short story by Asad Muhammad Khan called ‘Mai’I Dada’. It is the story of Abdul Majeed Khan Yusuf Zai, aka Mai’I Dada, a boorish old Pathan retainer living off an extended Pathan clan in an unnamed city in Pakistan. Barely literate and invariably committed to the grievous j – z substitution, he calls himself Abdul Mazeed Khan Esoop Jai. Mai’I Dada is beloved of the families of the clan, particularly the children whom he regales constantly with the Great Pathan saga, seeding their minds with narratives of Pashtuniyat. He tells them repeatedly of the purity of their blood and bones, of their inborn facility for martial activity, of tribal wars fought by their ancestors against the kuffar (infidels).

All this is at variance with a persistent rumour about him spread by the neighbourhood dhobi that he is actually a Hindu teli (the caste that pressed oil) masquerading as a Pathan. Mai’IDada’s standard response to this charge is that as a young man he had managed to rile the dhobis by rubbing their womenfolk the wrong way (quite literally), and the dhobis’ progeny of foul animals that they were ( yeh badjan aawaron ki aulad), were now exacting a dastardly revenge.

The story reaches a sort of crescendo with the arrest of Mai’I Dada for assaulting Head Constable Sukhiya Ram in the state weapons storehouse. Mai’I Dada is asked by the narrator’s father to make a deposit of all their ancestral weapons, in pursuance of a government order. At the storehouse Sukhiya Ram is in charge that day and in Mai’I Dada’s own words, “that teli ka bachcha had the audacity to pick up a blade from our weapons pile, the dagger of the paradise-dwelling Navab Ghaus Bahadur and, then puffing away on his stinking bidi, sharpen his pencil with it.” The old man properly thrashes the living daylights out of Sukhiya and then vocalises his disgust: “That weapon is the legacy of sher-bachchas, not your vegetable-chopping knife,” he says. “It had become polluted when your hand first touched it, and I kept my peace; but now that you bhaan ka ghoda are sharpening your pencil with it, I’m not going to let you live.”

The tragic dénouement of the story is predictably in the revelation that Mai’I Dada was actually a Hindu teli raised by Pathans. The narrator discovers it quite by accident when he chances upon the naked groin of the dying old man in his final days and finds him to be uncircumcised. Mai’I Dada, when he knows he has been discovered, can barely get these words out of his larynx: “What will the boys think? A teli’s son will always be a teli’s son. He doesn’t become a Pathan even if the Pathans have reared him.”

Mai’IDada’s story has been famously narrated to packed houses all over the world by Zia Mohyeddin. The story has been drafted in a playfully waggish register and is as much about Mai’IDada’s personality as about the lapse of Pathans into lesser métier. But what unfailingly animates the audience into guffaws are the derogatory references to the Hindu dhobi and teli castes. And there are many of them.

How charitably do you think a Kanojia dhobi or the Akhil Bharatiya Dhobi Mahasangh would react to such a narration? Or the teli Sahusamaj? Or the incumbent chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Damodardas Modi, who was born into the Ghanchi teli caste?

But the more material question is this: would caste based ignominy or hubris kept alive in endogamous castes over thousands of years manifest in epigenetic effects? In north Maharashtra, most telis hide their family name and use the gratifying appellation Chaudhari as their surname. The caste system in insects, particularly in honeybees, is the most striking case of environmentally controlled variation in the physical and physiological form of members of a particular species (phenotypic polymorphism). The physical differences between worker and queen bees are caused by a differential diet during growth and maturation. While other larvae are fed the usual pollen and nectar, the larva ordained to be queen is fed a huge portion of royal jelly (the protein royalactin). This sets off a molecular cascade that culminates in the larva becoming a queen. Queens are the preeminent caste and bear large fertile ovaries; workers have vestigial, inoperative ovaries and are functionally sterile.

Hubris has been the placebo royal jelly that Brahmin and Pashtun children have been fed for two thousand years. Is it possible that it might have brought about some phenotypic change in them? After generations of controlled, endogamous breeding, would descendants have epigenetically changed their morphology, physiology, behaviour and life histories in response to changing conditions of self-esteem?

In the 1950s, the Russian geneticist Dimitri Belyaev started a programme of selectively breeding wild silver foxes at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Belyaev selected foxes for tameness alone. His method was quite straightforward: a gloved human hand was extended into each animal’s cage; the foxes that attacked, fled or bit the hand were excluded from breeding, but those that showed curiosity or allowed themselves to be petted were mated together. After just 10 generations of selective breeding, Belyaev had created something truly astounding: foxes that showed conspicuous physical and behavioural differences when compared to randomly bred counterparts. He had created foxes that wagged their tails, licked their custodians and performed solicitous jumps; foxes with floppy ears, piebald coats and upturned tails that barked. Foxes that looked like domesticated dogs.

Substitute low self-esteem for tameness in such an experiment and straightaway Dobzhansky’s proposition (that I opened with) starts sounding like a theorem.

AMBARISH SATWIK is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer. >asatwik@gmail. com

Published on March 24, 2014

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